Friday, September 17, 2010

My CFI to CFI Article: Mars Teaching Venus

"Mars teaching Venus," my article published in the CFI to CFI Newsletter
Reprinted with permission from AOPA Air Safety Foundation copyright CFI to CFI Newsletter.

Aviation has always been a male dominated industry, and although women have played important roles within aviation, they have had to adapt to a man's world.  Women have been a minority in all aviation fields except flight attendant, according to FAA statistics.

The oft-quoted statistic that 6 percent of certificated pilots are women has not changed in the past 100 years, so we have to ask ourselves why? Why has this number not increased, since in the past 10 years the ratio of female to male flight students has been at 11 percent? Why are we not turning these female flight students into pilots?

I believe that women and men are equally able to be successful pilots. But with a caveat: they learn differently. There are 5,500 women ground instructors compared to 75,000 overall, so let's address the more common male instructor-female student scenario.

Many women feel a need to understand everything before they feel comfortable doing it. A male flight instructor should allow a female student pilot the chance to ask questions, be prepared to try a couple different methods of explaining it to her, and say, “You don’t need to understand that quite yet,” if she doesn’t. Feeling like she’s missing a crucial nugget of information will cause your student to be distracted and lose confidence in her ability to successfully complete her training.

I remember when I went off to the U.S. Army’s Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training. On about day two of our helicopter training the instructor read through the Huey's start up checklist: Generator - On.

It could have been so much easier if I would have just flipped the switch on. But, no, I had to ask what a generator was. “It’s just like the alternator in your car,” the instructor says. Perhaps it was my blank stare that gave me away.

I am nothing if not tenacious though, and that was just the first of many episodes throughout flight school of me seeking to get the minimal amount of knowledge to comprehend the subject at hand. "Why does this happen? Why do we have to do it this way? Why am I just not getting this? What happens if - gasp - I do it wrong?"

My first few months in flight school were a struggle. I had a flight instructor who would bark orders and scream at me when I couldn’t do something right. In the midst of yet another episode crying on the shoulder of a friend who also happened to be an Army flight instructor, he confided, “You don’t have to understand it all now, just memorize what you need to in order to get through training.” "Really? I said. "You mean all of the guys in my class don’t understand it either? They’re just acting like they do?" So as hard as this was, I follwed his advice.

One of the things I didn’t understand (and was too afraid to ask about) was crucial to consistently flying stabilized visual approaches. Even to this day I can't remember what the name is for this technique, but it was some kind of "cone of action."  You were supposed to look at your intended landing point and see no movement at that point. However, everything around the point should be moving.Things in front would move forward, things to the side should move farther out, and things behind would move backward. If you got this concept, which I hadn't, you would be able to maintain a constant descent angle throughout your approach and landing, preventing you from under- or over-arcing from the straight line that could ideally be drawn from your point of initial descent to your touchdown point (add power for under arcing, subtract power for over arcing). Of course, this concept was never explained to me this way.

These gaps in my knowledge bothered me. I was obviously missing out on a good technique to fly a consistent approach, so my landings were continuously criticized for being imperfect. I wanted to understand, and not understanding made me lose confidence. Eventually, concepts I didn’t completely “get” at first started to fall into place. However, this learning process was a whole lot more stressful than it needed to be.

My experience is that men are less discomfited with gaps in their knowledge. They are more comfortable with figuring it out as they go along, jumping in feet first, hoping they keep it greasy side down. In all my training over the years I have had male instructors, and I have learned not to ask questions in class. Why? Because too many instructors read into my asking that that I can’t understand.

I remember in my initial Beechjet training discussing the electrical system. At some point I looked around and saw the same blank stare on every guy in the class. I whispered to the guy on my right, “Do you understand what he’s saying?” “Nope.” Same answer from the guy on my left. So I asked the instructor to clarify, which he did, albeit unsuccessfully. The worst part was the whole rest of the training he kept stopping after every block of instruction to ask me, “Did you get that, Lynda?” He was certainly just trying to be helpful, but man, was I embarrassed by the extra attention.

Eventually I realized that the guys in class weren’t worried. They were able to memorize what would be asked of them to pass their checkride, they were OK with knowing that, with time, they would come to understand through osmosis.

I have only had one simulator session with a female instructor. During the prebrief she mentioned a system on the Cessna Citation X that I was having the hardest time memorizing the limitations for because I didn’t understand the system. What did she do? She opened the systems manual to a picture of the system and said about 10 words on the subject and my understanding just fell into place. I think she was able to explain the matter so that I understood because as women we spoke the same language.

In my training to become a CFI while on furlough from my fractional airline job I hope to put my theories into practice and share with you the insight I gain.

--Lynda Meeks, a former U.S. Army helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, has also flown for regional and fractional airlines. She has more than 5,000 hours and is the founder of the nonprofit organization Girls With Wings, Inc. (


  1. "we must do that which we think we cannot"
    Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Lynda, Great post! I have to say when I was getting my engineer ticket years ago they referred to a "Bus" and I had a vision of a big yellow thing with wheels.
    I too have always wanted to know why. As a pilot instructor in the big Boeings...I have always learned why, so I could teach.
    Despite the memorizing random facts, people will not truly learn unless they understand. When the light bulb comes on...they remember. That's the key, to keep it with you.
    Today I blogged about landing the A330. I also have a couple posts a few months ago on learning, memory, mind etc..
    Hope you'll join me in my pursuit of educating and motivating the new pilots.
    PS... I added you to my blog.
    Fly safe!
    XOX Karlene "Flight to Success"